Mikko Innanen: In and Out and In the Moment


Mikko Innanen is a saxophonist, composer and bandleader from Finland. A deft and adaptable improviser, he thrives in settings that span jazz’s past, present and future: be it in freely improvised solos, duos or trios, small and large ensembles playing his own compositions, or working as a sideman interpreting other people’s music.

His journey through jazz and improvised music began in Loviisa, in small-town southern Finland, where the contents of his father’s comprehensive jazz record collection of jazz records led him to pursue the saxophone further. After starting out in local marching and big bands, he studied at Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy, during which time he spent a crucial exchange year at Copenhagen’s Rhythmic Music Conservatory.

Currently based in Helsinki, Innanen has spent a lot of time on the road, playing throughout Finland, Europe and the rest of the world. The diversity of Innanen’s playing and composition is well documented, with a discography of over 50 records. This active touring and recording allows him to continuously expand his network of collaborators, and to find further opportunities to explore the spontaneous creativity at the heart of his musical vision.


Innanen is fluent with all the members of the saxophone family but he describes himself as “basically an e-flat guy,” nowadays devoting his energies to the alto, baritone and sopranino. Along with the saxophone language of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, a key early influence was his first sax teacher, Bengt Ingelin, whom Innanen credits with nurturing his understanding of the importance of basic musical fundamentals.

Innanen’s own approach seamlessly links the diverse pathways the saxophone has taken through jazz. Within a single solo he can move from being deep in the melody or exploring complex chord changes to playing in free and far-out areas. He switches between horns just as fluently, incorporating special techniques, reeds from around the world and other little instruments if the situation deems it necessary. “If I find a sound I like, I use it,” he says. “I don’t want to sound like anybody else, but in the heat of the moment I might also listen to my inner Ben Webster, Sonny Rollins or Ornette Coleman.”

Composer & improviser

Innanen’s improvising and composition spring from the same source – a dedication to melody and a strong rhythmic foundation. Yet from this base he branches out in multiple directions, from interpreting traditional swing and blues-tinged, and sometimes even schlager-esque melodic themes to setting his own texts to music, exploring more theoretical concepts or reaching for the abstract and unknown. “As in life, in music you need to find a balance between beautiful and ugly, cerebral and carnal, sacred and profane, and fun and serious.”

His explorations have ranged from small-scale settings to much larger contexts. The former include solo saxophone performances on a small raft in the middle of the River Aura in Turku, the digital solo project F60.8. and improvised sax/drum duos with Mika Kallio, Simo Laihonen, Andrew Cyrille, Han Bennink and Andrew Barker. His work in ensembles shows a similar range: Mikko Innanen & Innkvisitio, Gourmet, Delirium, Tonight at Noon, Innanen/Piromalli/Hauta-aho/Lovens, Mr. Fonebone, Nuijamiehet, his 12-piece band Mikko Innanen 10+ (the latter even including with a full chorus for one performance), and several trio formations, such as PLOP, The Curators, Mikko Innanen Trio with Joe Fonda and Lou Grassi, Mikko Innanen with William Parker and Andrew Cyrille, Innanen/Sooäär/Bennink Trio, and Triot.

Bandleader & collaborator

When leading, he works to challenge and inspire the other musicians, to give them a reason and purpose for playing his music. He strives for the maximum result in his performances yet realizes that the outcome is always unknowable: “You have to accept that it is what it is, that it couldn’t be any other way.”

Innanen is an active bandleader, but he is equally at home contributing as a sideman and a featured soloist. His skills and taste as a band member have been trusted by, among others, Stefan Pasborg, Kalle Kalima, Mika Kallio, Teppo Mäkynen, Wadada Leo Smith, Henrik Otto Donner, TUMO, Seppo Kantonen, Per Zanussi, Jori Huhtala, Triade, Ibrahim Electric, Pekka Tuppurainen, Jussi Fredriksson, Iro Haarla & Ulf Krokfors, Admiral Awesome, Espoo Big Band and Trondheim Jazz Orchestra.

Live & in the studio

In the studio or as well as on the bandstand, Innanen seeks to capture openness and take advantage of spontaneity. Though he has an extensive discography, with over more than two dozen records under his own name and a couple few dozen more as a collaborator, he particularly enjoys being in the moment of performance with others, engaging in the direct communication that emerges in front of an audience.

He has performed throughout Europe, though his touring schedule has taken him as far away as South America, Asia and North Africa. In 2008 he began making extended stays and gigging regularly in New York City. These visits culminated in two mini-festivals in Brooklyn in 2012 and 2013, featuring his collaborations with a wide range of world-class improvisers.

Innanen spent much of late 2017 touring Finland with his Maakuntalaulu-uudistus 2017 (Regional Anthem Reform 2017), with which featured drummer Mika Kallio, accordionist Veli Kujala and tubist Petri Keskitalo, presenting new interpretations of the country’s various regional songs.


(text: Matthew Wuethrich & Mikko Innanen 2018)

©2018 mikkoinnanen.com